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A British Dynasty

Text: Sebastian Zimmel / Photos: Hunters & Frankau, Elizabeth Hartnoll, Sebsatian Zimmel

Great Britain has always had a reputation for its sophisticated tastes and cigar smoking culture. In particular, there have traditionally been good contacts with Cuba. With Jemma Freeman, managing director of the largest British premium cigar importer, Hunters & Frankau, a young woman is at the head of the cigar business in the United Kingdom.

Jemma Freeman welcomed me to her modern office on Sulivan Road in London’s Fulham. The cheerful brick building bears a round brass plate with the words “Hunters & Frankau – Estab-lished 1790 – Importers and Distributors of the Finest Cigars”. Both the Union Jack and the Cuban flag flutter in the July sun. “It was my father’s decision to move here”, she says. “When cigars still came by ship, it might have been an advantage to be directly by the docks. Now, we are not so far from the airport and from the West End, where many of our customers are to be found.” Jemma Freeman is the sixth generation of her family to run the business: “My father, Nicholas Freeman, was a charismatic individual. He was regarded with respect in the World of cigars. It was a delight to be at his side. He was a great teacher.”
Hunters & Frankau (H&F) is the longest-standing importer of cigars in Europe and for a time even held the H. Upmann trade-mark and owned the factory of the same name in Havana (1922–1937), be-fore Donald G. Freeman sold the factory to Alonso Menendez and Pepe Garcia, the founders of the Montecristo brand. Today H&F is the exclusive importer of Cuban cigars in Great Britain, and is also sole importer of Villiger, Agio, Santa Damiana and other world famous brands. The company employs a staff of 55, including internationally famous experts such as the former head of marketing at Habanos S.A., Ana López, now Cuban Corporate Director on the H&F board alongside marketing director Simon Chase, sales director John Darnton, the head of finance Philip Hambidge and chairman David Lewis. “We have twelve members on our Salesforce including three national account managers, one who looks after our business with multiples, one for wine merchants and hotel groups and one who takes care of our Travel Retail and airport business.” says Jemma Freeman. “Since the total ban on smoking in Great Britain, we have increased our collaboration with the off licence drinks trade – a strategy that has paid off. The retailers in this sector mostly have good training, they know a lot about taste and aromas. Someone who sells quality wines and spirits can also recommend good cigars. We work together both with major groups of companies such as Nicolas, Oddbins and Threshers and with smaller family drinks merchants.”

I could not se anyone smoking in the offices, so does the strict statutory ban on smoking at the place of work now in force for over a year also apply at Hunters & Frankau? Jemma Freeman smiles: “Few people know more about the law than our persistent marketing director, Simon Chase.  As Chair of the Imported Tobacco Advisory Council (ITPAC), Simon was able to obtain an exemption in specialist tobacco shops for ‘sampling’ cigars and pipe tobaccos.  There are strict conditions, but we were able to satisfy them in one room in our offices, the conference room.  Without this, we would simply not be able to do our job.”  The rule applies to tobacco specialists who make more than 50% of their turnover with cigars, pipe tobacco, snuff and smoking accessories – a total of 46 shops in England and Northern Ireland. Overall, there are around 80 Specialist Tobacconists in the United Kingdom. I select a Hoyo de Monterrey Petit Robusto from the walk-in humidor and reflect how absurd it would be if smoking were not permitted in institu-tions such as J. J. Fox, where Sir Winston Churchill used to order his Havanas. As a student at Manchester University, Jemma Freeman had holiday jobs both at J. J. Fox in St James Street and in the Harrods branch. “Nowadays, although the retail trade still accounts for the majority of our business we continue to pay particular atten-tion to the catering business”, explained Jemma. “We are present at major events such as the horse racing at Ascot, Newbury and Goodwood as well as many other prestigious outdoor events such as The Goodwood Revival. It is at such events that smokers can come together, in an environment where smoking is permitted. This year we held a party for 250 people in a garden in the centre of London to launch the new Hoyo Epicure Especial and H. Upmann Magnum 50. It was held outdoors so people could smoke and more importantly so that cigar lovers could get together and share a cigar.” Hunters & Frankau have invested years and much money in training sommeliers, waiters and restaurant managers. After all, it has always been part of good manners in a British restaurant to actively offer cigars from the humidor. Now that this is no longer possible indoors, the concept of the takeout cigar is becoming increasingly the alternative. For this reason, the company is maintaining its presence at bar shows and relevant trade fairs. Jemma Freeman has lit a Por Larranaga Petit Corona. ”We are seeing a shift in our customer base. If smoking is no longer allowed in pubs, this naturally is having consequences on consumer behaviour. On the one hand, we are losing established customers, while on the other hand many new customers are making use of the opportunities provided by the new terrace lounges.” One particular example is the Lanesborough Hotel on Hyde Park Corner. The Garden Room is a newly adapted truly luxurious lounge for cosseted smokers. The two staff members are excellently trained, the range of cigars is impressive and dates back into the pre-Castro period; it is hardly surprising that sales have rocketed since the general ban on tobacco.

Simon Chase joins our discussion. Amongst aficionados, he is world famous for his masterly handling of the annual auctions at the Festival del Habano. He adds: “It’s not unusual here for customers to leave a few thousand pounds at the bar in a single evening. However, they want the very best – Ediciones Limitadas, rare and old Havanas, simply every thing that the heart desires.” He talks enthusiastically about a cigar dinner the previous evening in the Caledonian Club in Belgravia, where, together with Richard Paterson of Whyte & Mackay, he had held a Cigar & Malt Evening. After kippers, salmon pâté and beef tournedos, the cigars were handed round. Ramon Allones Small Club Corona, Cohiba Siglo III and Cuaba Generosos, all dating from 1997, the year in which he held his first event in the Caledonian. Simon is in high demand as a speaker ... more than ever since the ban on smoking. His suitcase for this evening in Birmingham is already packed. Simon is also noted as a living history book of Hunters & Frankau, and no one knows the company history better than he does. That is why the company's memorabilia is so important to him. Again and again, he uses it to find ideas for new editions of forgotten cigars specifically for the British market.
“Leading hotel and catering enterprises in Great Britain show that the ban on smoking can also offer new opportunities”, says Jemma Freeman about the new trends in the business. “For example, Boisdale of Belgravia in London or the Hotel du Vin in Tunbridge Wells in Kent have created attractive and sophisticated outdoor lounges for epicurean smokers to relax in accordance with the law. We encourage these activities and we have started to hold regular events for cigar smokers in collaboration with catering customers who have outdoor spaces”. Of course it took time for some restaurants, pubs and hotels to realise that they are losing valuable cigar smoking customers. Now they want to get them back. H&F provides advice and service not only for large-scale elegant cigar dinners but also for smaller and more informal events. The up-to-date list of venues that are “cigar friendly” as well as a calendar of events can be downloaded free of charge by registered members of the Cigar Smokers Club from the website www.cigars.co.uk. “This enables consumers to look for pubs, restaurants or bars in the UK that have outdoor smoking facilities and to attend cigar events if they wish.  Our aim is to continue to support not only the trade but our consumers by creating a network of venues and events that cigar lovers can enjoy. After the first shock of the ban on smoking, the cigar is now experiencing a small renaissance.”
The extremely high level of tax is an added difficulty for the cigar trading in Great Britain. Tobacco is taxed on the basis of weight, and for this reason the market in premium cigars is very much dominated by Cuban handmade cigars. The current economic recession is clearly perceptible. Jemma Freeman: “Fortunately, we also have less expensive but high quality products in our range. The Villiger brand remains very strong in this market, Agio with their Meharis range is becoming increasingly popular and our sales of Mini Cubanos are also growing at an above average rate – here the strength of Cuban brands pays off.”

Jemma Freeman likes travelling around the world with her husband, a lawyer. She enjoys skiing, her home and her garden. The nest for the seventh generation has already been prepared. At the same time, she is fascinated by her job and the opportunity of being able to learn something new every day. The cigar business is in her blood, not only because her family has been in the cigar trade for almost 220 years, but also because she learnt it from the bottom up. Incidentally, her first cigar was “probably a Montecristo No. 1 that my father let me taste while I was still very, very young”. The first cigar that she really smoked deliberately and with enjoyment was a Trinidad Fundadores that Edward Sahakian, the owner of Davidoff of London gave her, and that’s not all that long ago. Being driven around in an open Audi convertible by an exciting woman through the sunny Borough of Fulham with a Montecristo Edmundo in my hand gives me the pleasant feeling that there is no doubt that one of the last bastions of the British and European way of life is in charming hands, the hands of Jemma Freeman, one of the most important personalities in the global cigar trade and without doubt the most charming.